To its enormous credit, the California Marketing Agreement component of the Western Growers Association’s proposed solution to the spinach/lettuce E. coli 0157:H7 crisis is a program that it can actually make happen. In fact, the board is in the process of being chosen right now.
United’s proposal for government regulation is not something United has it in its power to implement directly. It is not a solution that it can put in place; it is more an expression of desire that Congress and the President put in place a solution to the problem than an actual solution.
Equally, our initial response to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative was a little melancholy because the buyers appealed to the associations to solve the problem instead of changing their own buying standards. As with United’s proposal, the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative was more of an expression of desire that someone else — in this case the trade associations — should solve the problem.
Coming back from Fruit Logistica in Berlin, the most notable substantive difference in the offer that produce vendors make to buyers is that each vendor flaunts its multiple certifications. The base line is EurepGap. If you are a grower in Uruguay or Senegal or Croatia looking to sell to large European chains and, especially the big four British chains, the very first thing you have to do is get EurepGap-certified. It is the “price of admission” to do business with these companies.
The Gold Standard is probably the Marks & Spencer program known as “Field-to-Fork,” which incorporates EurepGap standards and also goes beyond food safety to include all kinds of environmental and ethical standards. Marks & Spencer describes it this way:
In 2003 we launched a new over-arching set of standards to cover the management of our supply chain for fruit, vegetables and salads. These were drawn up after consultation with suppliers, government bodies and other organisations and covers aspects of production from “field-to-fork”.
We have commissioned independent research to look at similar systems around the world. As a result, we believe our Field-to-Fork scheme goes beyond the British and European assurance schemes used by other retailers, being the first to include such a wide range of requirements. Our standards cover traceability, minimising pesticide use, ethical trading, support for non-GM foods and food safety. They also recommend our suppliers move towards recognised best practice schemes on issues such as protecting the Environment — by adopting LEAF (Linking the Environment — and Farming) Marque, which provides independent certification that standards have been met (see www.leafmarque.com/leaf/ for more information).
Notice how close Marks & Spencer comes in this quote, which is from its website, to promoting its food safety standards as better than its rivals.
The interesting thing is that none of these standards are government requirements. They are driven by the British retailers.
In fact, it recently started to happen in the U.S. Want to know the retail chain that has had the most substantive impact on moving U.S. produce companies to higher level certifications? The name is Tesco. The British-based chain that is preparing to launch its first stores in Arizona.
While our industry has been consumed with its search for an industry-wide solution, Tesco, in preparation for its U.S. launch, has been quietly approaching suppliers and getting them to understand what standards must be met to be a Tesco supplier.
And they are listening. More than one grower told the Pundit that they have had the opportunity to do business with Darden but never acted on it because Darden’s standards were expensive and difficult to meet while the volume on the lines these growers sold was small.
Tesco, which tells people it is going to move big volume, is another bird entirely.
In fact, what Tesco is doing in developing a supplier base for its new stores is really just a follow up to what has been going on in the export deal for years. Those companies looking to supply the big U.K. retailers have been subjecting themselves to these difficult-to-meet standards for years.
The motivation? Business.
As such, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth for each member of the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative. The Western Growers approach — one commodity and one state with uncertain prospects for going mandatory or national — seems to be limited in its effectiveness to stop future foodborne outbreaks, certainly for other commodities and other growing regions.
United’s call for mandatory regulation seems, at best, a multi-year project.
PMA is supporting the industry efforts financially, but has not articulated any program of its own.
This all means that the trade associations and the government seem unlikely to solve the problem.
In the end, retailers will have to get involved in this issue because they are the consumers’ advocate. But they are not the general consumers’ advocate — they are advocates for their own customers.
And, at this point, it is clear that no industry-wide effort will solve the problem.
So these retail and foodservice operators have a responsibility to take care of their own customers.
The best single start to such an effort would be for the retailers who have signed the Buyer-led-Food Safety Initiative, especially the big ones, to simply announce that they continue to support industry efforts, but in the meantime, after an 18-month phase in, they will not buy produce that is not certified to meet the food safety and traceability standards of Marks & Spencer, Tesco, ASDA and Sainsbury’s.
Note that no research is required, no laws need to be passed, no resolution of trade associations must be issued. These standards all exist and are already being audited.
The standards may not be perfect. As science advances, they can be changed and enhanced, but the British example is the most likely path to quick improvement in food safety. It is certainly the most reasonable method for the big buyers, who are working for their customers, to ensure they are selling them food grown under a world-class food safety system.